Detecting Texts

Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism

Patricia Merivale
Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Detecting Texts
    Book Description:

    Although readers of detective fiction ordinarily expect to learn the mystery's solution at the end, there is another kind of detective story-the history of which encompasses writers as diverse as Poe, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Auster, and Stephen King-that ends with a question rather than an answer. The detective not only fails to solve the crime, but also confronts insoluble mysteries of interpretation and identity. As the contributors to Detecting Texts contend, such stories belong to a distinct genre, the "metaphysical detective story," in which the detective hero's inability to interpret the mystery inevitably casts doubt on the reader's similar attempt to make sense of the text and the world. Detecting Texts includes an introduction by the editors that defines the metaphysical detective story and traces its history from Poe's classic tales to today's postmodernist experiments. In addition to the editors, contributors include Stephen Bernstein, Joel Black, John T. Irwin, Jeffrey T. Nealon, and others.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0545-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. The Gameʹs Afoot: On the Trail of the Metaphysical Detective Story
    (pp. 1-24)
    Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney

    This collection of critical essays is the first to track down the metaphysical detective story, a genre of largely twentieth-century experimental fiction with a flamboyant yet decidedly complex relationship to the detective story, and a kinship to modernist and postmodernist fiction in general. The metaphysical detective story is distinguished, moreover, by the profound questions that it raises about narrative, interpretation, subjectivity, the nature of reality, and the limits of knowledge. For these reasons, the aims of our volume are different from—and indeed, go far beyond—those of other books that have been published on detective fiction, pop culture, postmodernist...

  5. Armchair Detecting, or the Corpus in the Library
    • Chapter 1 Mysteries We Reread, Mysteries of Rereading: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story
      (pp. 27-54)
      John T. Irwin

      Let me start with a simple-minded question: How does one write analytic detective fiction as high art when the genre’s basic structure, its central narrative mechanism, seems to discourage the unlimited rereading associated with serious writing? That is, if the point of an analytic detective story is the deductive solution of a mystery, how does the writer keep the achievement of that solution from exhausting the reader’s interest in the story? How does one write a work that can be reread by people other than those with poor memories?

      I use the term “analytic detective fiction” here to distinguish the...

    • Chapter 2 Borgesʹs Library of Forking Paths
      (pp. 55-74)
      Robert L. Chibka

      I begin this essay about Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1942), appropriately enough, with a small confession. I am here engaged in a practice of which I generally disapprove: writing professionally on a text in whose language of composition I am illiterate. That a trivial discrepancy between two English translations of “El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” started me down this path is a paltry excuse.² Yu Tsun, whose sworn confession constitutes all but the first paragraph of “The Garden of Forking Paths,” has this advice for the “soldiers and bandits” he sees inheriting the world:...

    • Chapter 3 (De)feats of Detection: The Spurious Key Text from Poe to Eco
      (pp. 75-98)
      Joel Black

      It’s customary to credit Poe with elaborating all the conventions of detective fiction that subsequent practitioners of the genre have followed to a greater or lesser degree.¹ Yet Poe’s privileged role as founder or father of a literary genre—a role perhaps unique in literary history—has obscured the fact that he marks what can now be recognized as a first phase of the genre’s development. Key works of detective fiction in the twentieth century, especially in its latter half, represent a distinct departure from Poe’s “tales of ratiocination” and, indeed, from traditional hermeneutics.² Before we can delineate this later...

  6. Hard-Boiling Metaphysics
    • Chapter 4 Gumshoe Gothics: Poeʹs ʺThe Man of the Crowdʺ and His Followers
      (pp. 101-116)
      Patricia Merivale

      “An excellent idea, I think, to start from a dead body,” said Kobo Abe (Inter 47), and Hubert Aquin, similarly, “L’investigation délirante de Sherlock Holmes débute immanquablement à partir d’un cadavre” (“Sherlock Holmes’s dizzying investigation unfailingly starts off from a corpse” [Trou 82]). About how the classical detective story starts they were both right. But, of course, quite often there isn’t a corpse in the postmodernist library. “There is no body in the house at all,” said Sylvia Plath, in an inscrutable poem called “The Detective” (1962), which I suspect is, like most of the texts I am discussing, about...

    • Chapter 5 Work of the Detective, Work of the Writer: Austerʹs City of Glass
      (pp. 117-133)
      Jeffrey T. Nealon

      The detective novel is often analyzed in terms of its metafictional and metaphysical appeal. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the genre comments upon the process of sifting through signs, and ultimately upon the possibility of deriving order from the seeming chaos of conflicting signals and motives. The unraveling work of the detective within the story mirrors and assists the work of the reader, as both try to piece together the disparate signs that might eventually solve the mystery. The reader of the detective novel comes, metafictionally, to identify with the detective, because both reader and detective are bound up in the...

    • Chapter 6 ʺThe Question Is the Story Itselfʺ: Postmodernism and Intertextuality in Austerʹs New York Trilogy
      (pp. 134-154)
      Stephen Bernstein

      Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy of metaphysical detective novels—City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1986)¹—clearly fulfills Fredric Jameson’s definition of those “postmodernisms” that are “fascinated precisely by this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch … of so-called paraliterature with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery and science-fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply ‘quote’ … but incorporate into their very substance” (55). This fascination ultimately confirms Tzvetan Todorov’s comment that “at a certain point detective fiction experiences as an unjustified burden...

  7. Postmortem:: Modern and Postmodern
    • Chapter 7 Reader-Investigators in the Post-Nouveau Roman: Lahougue, Peeters, and Perec
      (pp. 157-178)
      Michel Sirvent

      A trend that I will characterize as the “post-nouveau roman detective novel” may be distinguished in the current French literary scene.¹ A new narrative hybrid form is being developed which partakes of both the mystery story and the early nouveau roman. Novels of the first phase of the nouveau roman, particularly Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (Les Gommes, 1953), Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps (1957), and Claude Ollier’s La Mise en scène (1958), as well as a nouveau nouveau roman like Jean Ricardou’s Les Lieux-dits (1969), used detective-story structures.² Although they played with some traits of mystery fiction, they did not...

    • Chapter 8 ʺA Thousand Other Mysteriesʺ: Metaphysical Detection, Ontological Quests
      (pp. 179-198)
      Jeanne C. Ewert

      Describing the novel that would become The Third Policeman (1967), Flann O’Brien defines succinctly the postmodernist, or metaphysical, detective story.¹ In this twentieth-century divergence from classic mysteries, apparently orthodox tales of detection are populated by extraordinary detectives subject to unexpected rules of behavior. Metaphysical detection calls into question structures taken for granted after Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841): the hermeneutic strategies of rendering meaningful those signs which are unintelligible to others, and of divining the mind of an opponent; the epistemological method of discovering truth by questioning sources of knowledge; and the adept detective’s triumph over...

    • Chapter 9 Postmodernism and the Monstrous Criminal: In Robbe-Grilletʹs Investigative Cell
      (pp. 199-214)
      Raylene Ramsay

      Since the early 1950s, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings and films have influenced that body of French literary investigative work which reflects the “suspicion” (in Nathalie Sarraute’s sense) that the real world and natural language might be arbitrary constructions. Despite the metafictional character of his de-naturing of traditional narratives, his ex-posing of the ideologies concealed behind Western myths, and his interrogation of the hidden structures of thought and feeling (Logos and Eros) in which writer and reader are enmeshed, Robbe-Grillet’s detecting project can itself be generated only from within the traditional frames of language, myth, and feeling.

      In Topologie d’une cité fantôme...

  8. Forging Identities
    • Chapter 10 Detecting Identity in Time and Space: Modianoʹs Rue des Boutiques Obscures and Tabucchiʹs Il Filo dellʹorizzonte
      (pp. 217-230)
      Anna Botta

      Among contemporary novelists concerned with a problematics of time, the names of Patrick Modiano and Antonio Tabucchi figure prominently. They have made their reputation on the French and Italian literary scenes as authors of a distinctive and consistent body of work, characterized by unfathomable pasts and irretrievable identities. As a consequence, their protagonists are often detective-philosophers hot on the trail of existential and metaphysical conundrums, new Sherlock Holmeses who have turned the magnifying lens on themselves.

      The occupation of France during World War II marks Modiano’s narrators, depriving them of an origin and consequently a stable identity. In Tabucchi’s works,...

    • Chapter 11 ʺPremeditated Crimesʺ: The Dis-Solution of Detective Fiction in Gombrowiczʹs Works
      (pp. 231-246)
      Hanjo Berressem

      In the following essay, I will trace elements of the metaphysical detective story in the works of Witold Gombrowicz and align them within a psychoanalytic (in particular, Lacanian) framework. For this project, I will draw on the elective affinity between detective fiction and psychoanalysis, which is based—at least partly—on the fact that, like the criminal case, the psychoanalytic case is a knotty problem with death at its center. Jacques Lacan, in fact, defines human reality in general as “The Case of the Borromean Knot,” the structure he draws upon to describe the interrelated realms of the symbolic, the...

    • Chapter 12 ʺSubject-Casesʺ and ʺBook-Casesʺ: Impostures and Forgeries from Poe to Auster
      (pp. 247-270)
      Susan Elizabeth Sweeney

      What does it mean, in Thoreau’s terms, to “suppose a case”? “To suppose,” as Stein suggests, is to substitute some faraway, remotely possible “instance” for one’s real position. (“Suppose” derives, in fact, from the roots of substitute and position.) A “case” is a set of circumstances or conditions. Supposing a case, then, must mean thinking in the subjunctive mood: imagining scenarios, developing hypotheses, speculating that “if this were the case,” or “in that case,” or even “in any case….” But “case” also has another meaning: a crime that requires investigation.¹ Indeed, the best way to solve such a case, according...

  9. In Place of an Ending
    • Suggestions for Further Reading
      (pp. 273-284)
      Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 285-288)
  11. Index
    (pp. 289-305)